Dr. Curley Bonds, chief deputy director of clinical operations for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, said the racial unrest after the killing of George Floyd coinciding with the global pandemic created the “perfect storm” for people who were already feeling anxious, depressed and traumatized.

What You Need To Know

  • Dr. Curley Bonds said racial unrest that erupted during pandemic heightened people’s anxieties and emotions

  • Dr. Bonds said people should have conversations about the unrest 

  • Black people are impacted by elevated levels of cortisol that affect stress hormones

  • Post-traumatic slavery syndrome is caused by decades of oppression and racism

“The pandemic was then caught with one about violence, and people were really fearful about their lives, and certainly people of color, particularly African Americans, feeling like we've already got one target on our back from the coronavirus, which was disproportionately affecting the Black community, and then to have racial injustice come about, which wasn’t new, but certainly became a more central front page news, to be confronted with that every day just heightened people’s anxieties and emotions,” he said.

Dr. Bonds said people shouldn’t just “cope” with the pandemic and racial unrest; rather, they should have conversations about it.

“Coping puts the blame or the burden on the person who’s experiencing the difficulties to fix it. In this case, I believe that it's relying on allies to understand,” he said. “I think what we’ve been encouraging throughout our department and with our clients is to have conversations about what’s going on. I think the first step is to accept that this isn’t imaginary. It’s not you being an extremist if you think that there’s racial injustice in this country, but it’s a hard reality.” 

Talking about difficult topics might raise strong emotions based on politics or values. Dr. Bonds suggests approaching conversations with empowerment, engagement, time to explore, and empathy.

“We’re all in this together, and our society improves as a group if we’re all able to contribute to making life better, because right now, there are a lot of healthcare disparities that have been brought about by COVID. We see them really starkly. African Americans are dying at a rate twice that of white Americans,” he said. “We’ve just seen that our healthcare system has been subjected to a few structural inequalities that result back to basically racism or racial unequal distribution of goods.”

The racism that Black people in America have experienced for hundreds of years contributes to health disparities today.

“It’s been over 400 years that this country has had what I would call systematic and structural racism, and that’s resulted in a lot of health outcomes that are different,” Dr. Bonds said. “We know that there are healthcare disparities, and it’s not just about access to care. It’s about how racism itself can have an impact on individuals health.”

Dr. Bonds explained that elevated levels of cortisol affect stress hormones that cause a quicker breakdown of the body.

“We know that African Americans die six to 10 years earlier than their white peers because of these things. We also know that babies that are born in this country, Africa American babies, have a much higher mortality rate in the first year of life,” he said. “It’s pretty dramatic, and a part of this we think is due to changes that can happen in the DNA that can be inherited from generation to generation, so-called epigenetic changes, where there are parts of the chromosome that are physically changed by being exposed to stress.”

Post-traumatic slavery syndrome, which Dr. Bonds said is akin to post-traumatic stress disorder, is caused by decades of oppression, racism, and unequal distribution of resources, all of which can result in poor mental health outcomes. 

“Seeing and hearing about negative things happening to people that you identify with... in other words, seeing an African American killed or seeing an African American mistreated, can result in more mental health days as a result for an individual who is a person of color,” Dr. Bonds said.

 Dr. Bonds has worked “incredibly long hours” since the pandemic began. In order to take care of himself too, he’s worked 10 minutes of meditation into his schedule.

“The County of Los Angeles has access, all residents, to an application called Headspace. It’s one of the many apps out there that you can download, and if you visit headspace and look for DMH, or Department of Mental Health, you can actually use that for free until December 31,” Dr. Bonds said.

He also reaches out to close friends and family to check in.

“Just taking time out to reflect and then to let people know how you're doing and to check in on others… that sense of altruism really does help an individual,” he said.

Dr. Bonds suggests asking Black friends, colleagues, and family members how they’re managing during this difficult time.

“Just opening up the conversation, giving them the invitation so to speak to know that you’re an ally, that you’re interested in hearing about it,” he said.

Los Angeles is making difficult decisions about how to allocate its money for the upcoming fiscal year. Many Angelenos are calling to defund the police and reallocate resources toward mental health professionals, social workers, and other services that don’t involve law enforcement.

“I think any society has to make hard choices. Right now the county of Los Angeles is facing close to a billion dollar deficit because of the economic downturn. That’s reality, so we’re going to have to look at what programs we can sustain, which ones have been effective, and to spend money more wisely. But we’re going to have less resources, so to think that we’re going to have to divide up a pie that’s even smaller, to make intentional choices. If we want to put money into programs that might decrease health disparities, there are parts of L.A. that just don’t have the same access to care,” Dr. Bonds said.

The L.A. County Department of Mental Health works closely with County Supervisors to allocate resources equally throughout the region. Dr. Bonds said law enforcement officers should be paired with unarmed professionals when responding to mental health or homeless crises.

“I have enormous respect for law enforcement. I worked at the county jail. I know that being a sheriff deputy is not an easy job, but I think if we’re going to hire those folks, to make sure that they get the proper type of training,” he said. “I think some of the best partnerships are when law enforcement doesn’t just roll out on its own to respond to social unrest or events, but to have them paired with a mental health provider, and when possible, to have more funding for mental health so that our psychiatric mobile response teams can go out into the community, respond to emergencies, without having to have an armed officer present because that can escalate situations based on my experience.”

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